Markets, Meritocracy, and Human Rights

So far as I understand it, one of the chief arguments in favor of unfettered free markets is that they would allow for a true meritocracy.  All who were willing would be able to find work and, as a result, be able to eat, purchase healthcare, have a home, etc.  Putting aside the fact that I do not think that “leaving it to the free market” would in any way result in a meritocratic society—on the contrary, it is plutocracy—I think there is a deeper moral problem with this line of reasoning.

The idea that one’s basic needs (food, water, shelter, healthcare, etc.) should be earned for oneself on the basis of merit—which, in this case, means one’s ability to sell oneself on the market and bring profit to her employer—is, I think, extremely problematic.  First of all, it is unclear to me how this situation is in any way one of freedom.  If one must sell oneself in order to survive, one is not free; one’s labor is forced.  And as David Graeber writes in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “It is the great scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.”[1]

But, furthermore, (and more to the point), it must be asked: Why does not the simple fact of being human constitute sufficient “merit” to not starve because one cannot afford food, or to live on the streets because one cannot afford a home, or to die in an ambulance because one cannot afford healthcare?  It seems to me that however lazy or unproductive someone happens to be, however little monetary value she may have—which, I should add, is at least as often a result of the “free market” deciding her particular skillset is not presently profitable as it is laziness—one still has the right, in virtue of being human, to have her basic needs met.

“Leaving it to the free market” essentially means, at best, leaving it to luck, and at worst, to the all-too-often merciless greed perpetuated by the religion of profit maximization.  That is no place for human rights.  Human life is not a commodity.  And the fact that we have to sell ourselves to employers, who profit by stealing as much as labor laws will allow from the value of our commoditized labor—and by extension, commoditized lives—simply in order to survive, is ludicrous, unnecessary, and immoral.

And it is not enough to simply advocate regulated capitalism either, which seems to me to be analogous to patching the roof on a home with a faulty foundation and calling it good (the foundation of capitalism being the maximization of profit which, both in theory and practice, seems to necessarily imply a skirting of human rights where there is profit to made.  If, therefore, one values—no economic pun intended—human rights over profit, rather than the other way around, it seems that one has already betrayed the basic logic of capitalism).  The foundation itself must be changed.

[1] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011), 350.

Jayaprakash Narayan: From Socialism to Sarvodaya (1957)

In a passage that is as relevant today as it was in 1957, Jayaprakash Narayan writes,

The party system with the corroding and corrupting struggle for power inherent in it, disturbed me more and more.  I saw how parties backed by finance, organization and the means of propaganda could impose themselves on the people; how people’s rule became in effect party rule; how party rule in turn became the rule of a caucus or coterie; how democracy was reduced to mere casting of votes; how even the right to vote was restricted severely by the system of powerful parties setting up their candidates from whom alone, for all practical purposes, the voters had to make their choice; how even this limited choice was made unreal by the fact that the issues posed before the electorate were by and large incomprehensible to it.

The party system as I saw it was emasculating the people.  It did not function so as to develop their strength and initiative, nor to help them establish their self-rule and to manage their affairs themselves.  All that parties were concerned with was to capture power for themselves so as to rule over the people, no doubt, with their consent!  The party system, so it appeared to me, was seeking to reduce the people to the position of sheep whose only function of sovereignty would be to choose periodically the shepherds who would look after their welfare.  This to me did not spell freedom–the freedom, the swaraj (I), for which I fought and for which the people of this country fought. (II)



(I) Vinoba Bhave, in “Sarvodaya: Freedom From Government”, writes that, “These two things together make swaraj–no submission and no exploitation.”

(II) Both excerpts taken from Robert Graham’s Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Two: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977).  (Montreal/New York/London: Black Rose Books, 2009), pp. 183-192.